The nation’s opioid epidemic has generally been considered a “white people issue” affecting prescription pill poppers in rural America who’ve moved on to stronger opiates like fentanyl and heroin. However, a recent surge in opioid overdoses among African-Americans in the Ohio metropolis of Cleveland has left city officials extremely worried.
In 2016, 58 of Cuyahoga County’s 399 fatal fentanyl overdoses were of African-Americans, killed by a synthetic opioid that’s now responsible for nearly two-thirds of the U.S.’s overall fatal overdose cases, according to The Washington Post. The American Society of Addiction Medicine reported that drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the nation, with opioid addiction driving the epidemic. There were over 20,000 prescription pain killer-related overdose deaths in 2015, and nearly 13,000 overdose deaths related to heroin.
Cleveland officials believe the mixing of fentanyl and carfentanil, a highly powerful animal tranquilizer, into the region’s cocaine supply is responsible for the uptick in Black overdose deaths.
“The covert introduction of fentanyl into the cocaine supply has caused a rapid rise in fatalities, and in 2017 the rate of African-American fentanyl related deaths has doubled from 2016,” Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner Dr. Thomas Gilson said in Washington during his May 25 testimony before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.
“According to our latest data, cocaine deaths by themselves are the only deaths where we have a majority of African-Americans, Gilson added. “All of the other [drug] deaths that we’re seeing, the majority is white. I think it’s very reasonable for drug dealers to say, ‘We have this untapped market that is something we could reach out into with fentanyl as well.’ ”
Although overdose deaths have risen overall in Cuyahoga, the sudden jump in fentanyl-related deaths among Black drug users has been particularly alarming, as officials saw Black overdose deaths surge nearly 900 percent between 2014 and 2016.
The newspaper reported that six African-Americans in Cuyahoga died from fentanyl-related overdoses in 2014, and the toll reached 24 in 2015. Last year, 58 Black Ohioans died from using the synthetic drug, and 50 more have died in the first six months of 2017. By year’s end, Gilson said he expects to see over 125 victims.
Interviewed by The Washington Post, U.S. Rep. Marcia L. Fudge (D-Ohio), who just reintroduced a bill in Washington to help combat the drug crisis ravaging her district, said, “We have to find a way to get some control over the sales of fentanyl [and] find out where it’s coming from. We have to start to educate [our] people … who are less educated about the drugs, who have less resources and who tend to be treated at a lower rate.”
Ted Parran, an addiction expert and the co-medical director of Rosary Hall rehab facility, noted that the combination of cocaine and opiates, known as speedballs, is not a new phenomenon. The trend largely gained popularity in the 1990s.
“During previous opiate epidemics, dealers began to tell people to use cocaine with your opiates, and that way, you’ll get the opiate high, but the cocaine will kick in and you’ll get the euphoria of the stimulant,” Parran told the Post.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Drug Enforcement Administration point out, however, that the new cocaine-fentanyl mix is innately deadlier than the decades-old cocaine-heroin combo because fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more powerful than heroin. Carfentanil is also 100 times more potent than fentanyl, so a tiny amount of either drug could potentially be fatal.
In 2015, the national number of deaths from cocaine laced with opioids soared to nearly 5,000, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Fatal overdoses involving both cocaine and opioids have more than doubled since 2010, while cocaine deaths not involving opioids have increased by only nine percent, the organization said.
“We’re losing the game. We’re not winning this war,” William Denihan, chief executive of the county’s Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services Board, told The Washington Post.
“We have to stop and look at everything we’re doing and try to make it significantly different.”